A video has surfaced of a policeman whacking three Adivasi women in Golaghat district of eastern Assam. The video was broadcast by DY365, a leading Assamese news channel, on March 30.
In the video, two women, seen carrying vegetables on a bicycle, are stopped, abused and beaten with a stick by the enraged policeman, allegedly for “violating” the ongoing lockdown. A little later, the policeman walks ahead and assaults another woman carrying firewood from a field.
India today completed the first week of the 21-day lockdown imposed to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. The lockdown has been marked by incidents of police brutality from the start. On March 24, there were reports from Delhi and Hyderabad of police attacking , who are listed among essential services personnel and, thus, are exempted from the restrictions.
Over the next few days, there were numerous reports of the police attacking migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometres back home, or people stepping out to buy groceries.
The Golaghat incident only lengthens the list.
“Police hit women in Golaghat. See what the police have done on the pretext of controlling lockdown violators,” DY365 reported. “The police didn’t even spare women who went foraging for firewood and green vegetables.”
Joydeep Gupta, the channel’s correspondent in Golaghat, told Newslaundry the incident took place in Bogijan two days ago. He said the video was circulated on WhatsApp, possibly shot by one of the other policemen on the scene.
“You can see that the video was shot from inside a vehicle. And as there could be no other common vehicle on the road at the time, it had to be the police car,” Gupta explained. “You can even hear someone say: ‘Maribo napai buli koise.’ We have been told not to beat people."
Daily wagers struggling to survive
Golaghat, like other eastern Assam districts, is dotted with large tea estates. There are dozens of pockets of Adivasis, known as tea garden tribes, spread across the district. The women in the video, according to Gupta, belonged to that community.
“These are very poor people who work on the plantations. Many of them possibly don’t know about the coronavirus pandemic or the ongoing lockdown,” he said. “So, just like other days, they probably ventured out to fetch some vegetables and firewood for their daily needs.”
Assam has 803 registered tea estates and over 10,000 small plantations. Around 45 lakh daily wage labourers work in the tea industry in the state. Most of them live in abysmal socioeconomic conditions, earning about Rs 200 a day.
It’s an increase from the previous wage of Rs 167, which was decided in the last three-year wage agreement. That deal, however, expired in December 2017. Since, the Bharatiya Janata Party government has been promising to hike the wage to Rs 351, a promise that found mention in its recent election campaigns. But the promise has remained unfulfilled so far. In March 2018, only Rs 30 was added as an interim hike.
Apart from wages, labourers at big estates are provided with free housing, schooling for children, medical services, and subsidised rations by the companies. But those who work on smaller plantations are deprived of many of these benefits. With little cash in hand, most of them prefer to cut down on expenses which can be avoided. Green leafy vegetables and firewood are easily available in the countryside. For a hardpressed daily wager, that is often enough to run their kitchen.
Because of the lockdown, work on tea estates is limited, meaning that a large number of daily wage labourers no longer have an income. So, it’s common for some of them to venture in neighbouring areas for food.
Pranab Saikia, the local correspondent of News18 Assam, was present when the incident happened. According to Saikia, the police team reached the spot in search of country liquor purportedly sold by the women. He said two bottles were found in the basket of vegetables carried by the first two women on a bicycle.
“But both of them asserted that the bottles were for personal use and not for sale. And the third woman, who was carrying firewood, did not have any liquor with her,” Saikia said. “But the policeman did not spare her and beat her up like he did with the other two.”
There were no women police officers present, Saikia noted. “Even if the first two women had the alcohol for sale, how could he beat them? He could have probably chastised them or called female officers to pursue further action.”
Santanu Borthakur, an advocate at the Gauhati High Court, told Newslaundry the policeman’s action was a clear violation of the law. Under no circumstances can a male officer beat a woman, he said.
“There are certain sections in the Criminal Procedure Code which strictly prohibit such action. Though the Disaster Management Act, 2005 is currently enforced with special provisions, the fundamental right of a citizen under Article 21 of the Constitution can’t be violated,” Borthakur said.
The home ministry’s guidelines list certain punitive measures for lockdown violators under Section 51 of the Disaster Management Act. Accordingly, whoever, without reasonable cause, refuses to comply with the current government direction shall be punishable, on conviction, with imprisonment up to one year or a fine, or both.
“This clearly proves that the violator first needs to be produced before a court. The court will take the final decision as it deems fit,” Borthakur explained. “The police cannot resort to beating anyone, not just women.”
On the allegation that the women were guilty of selling illicit liquor, Borthakur said the police could only stop them, but not act on their own. “They needed to be taken to officers of the excise department who would act as per departmental law,” he said. “The police action in this case cannot be justified on any grounds.”
Police officer given a ‘stern warning’
DY365’s Joydeep Gupta identified the policeman in the video as sub inspector Robin Kalita, head of the Bogijan police station.
As determined by the home ministry, an executive magistrate, called “incident commander”, is responsible in the designated area of a district to enforce the lockdown measures. These incident commanders are appointed by the respective district magistrates.
In Bogijan, the incident commander is Satrajit Neog, an Assam Land and Revenue Services officer.
When Newslaundry contacted Neog, he said the police officer in question had been given a stern warning.
“His action was totally unacceptable. A local from the area gave me a written complaint and I immediately called him,” Neog said. “The complaint was also conveyed to the deputy commissioner and the superintendent of police of Golaghat.”
Would further action be taken against the officer? Neog said the administration was unable to do so due to the shortage of staff. “We are dealing with an emergency situation currently. We have decided not to suspend or transfer him due to a lack of human resources at the moment. But if it happens again, we will not hesitate to punish him or any such officer,” he said.
Police personnel in the district have been asked to deal with the situation carefully, Neog added. “They have been asked to inform of any violation to the civilian officer in charge. This was just a one-off incident.”
Extra power in extraordinary times
As the lockdown continues in India, the novel coronavirus is spreading rapidly. As of 5 pm today, according to a , the number of confirmed cases stood at 1,417, with 47 deaths. The global figure was 7,97,490 cases and 38,540 deaths. Italy continues to be the worst-affected country with 1,01,739 cases and 11,591 deaths.
India’s lockdown, amid the accelerating crisis, has made news for a number of wrong reasons. Police brutality as evidenced by the Golaghat incident shows that administrative excesses have not stopped and are likely to continue. Even yesterday, there were disturbing visuals of harmful chemical disinfectants on a group of homebound migrants in Uttar Pradesh’s Bareilly. With two-thirds of the lockdown remaining, the repetition of extreme state measures to “enforce” the guidelines may emerge time and again across the country.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed citizens locked in their homes on his monthly radio broadcast, Mann Ki Baat. While urging people to abide by the measures, he said: “We must understand this is a time to maintain social distance, not emotional or human distance.”
However, for policemen and other government functionaries on duty, this appears to have been a hollow appeal. Golaghat or Bareilly, the police’s actions are dehumanising. It reflects the tendency of some to assume extra power in extraordinary times. And across the country, the victims of this brazen muscle flexing have been poor, working class men and women.